Late Summer Reading III: “Rethinking Silicon Valley”

02_06_38-002-officeparks-e1538462180251.jpgIn our series of extracts from The Absurdity of Beauty – Rebalancing the Modernist narrative we wanted to include an excerpt from writer Sam Lubell and his essay “Rethinking Silicon Valley”.  Sam edited the California edition of The Architects’ Newspaper over many years and is currently a staff writer at Wired magazine.  His interests and knowledge of the Bay Area thus made him uniquely placed to write about Silicon Valley in The Absurdity of Beauty.  His essay on the architecture of the Silicon Valley is an insightful description of the urbanistic challenges office developments for high-tech industries continue to face as they are built ever further afield.

As architects at Form4 Architecture, we are particularly interested in this discourse having worked with many high-tech companies in the area. Over the years, we have sought ways in which to improve a sense of placemaking and the relationship of our buildings with their neighbours. We have tried to match the enthusiasm and interest our clients have for creating uniquely forward-looking office interiors to the exteriors of these buildings.

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Example of Silicon Valleys’s generic office types that blur and coalesce into a featureless urban tableau

It is a curious phenomenon that in terms of progressive design thinking Silicon Valley excels at space planning and fit-out but less so at genius loci. As Sam suggests, change is taking place and we are excited to be part of a movement that hopes to see the Silicon Valley as a place that people will not only go to work but one in which they will want to live.

“Rethinking Silicon Valley” by Sam Lubell – Extract:

So while today’s glamorous tech entities have brought a welcome emphasis on design with a capital D to the area, they haven’t transformed what remains a placeless place. Collaboration here is internal, not with the community; offices are open – and often they’re arranged with their own internal streets – but that’s as far as their urbanism reaches. Their elaborate contortions and urban simulacra haven’t reached beyond their corporate boundaries; and they’re not ready to rethink the larger social fabric.

Urban change, though, is slowly seeping into this anti-urban culture. Albeit via baby steps. Santa Clara is exploring mixed-use development around its new stadium. San Jose’s Santana Row, while hardly authentic, has developed into a true centre of human activity. Companies such as Adobe are going vertical in San Jose’s downtown core. And downtown Palo Alto, the most walkable and vibrant of Silicon Valley’s places, now demands higher rents than San Francisco.


CREDITS: Grid of building images by Mark Luthringer
Silicon Valley Aerials by Steve Proehl  


#architecture, #california, #californiaarchitecture, #SiliconValley, #HighTech, #TechBiz, #StartUp, #Urbanism, #Placemaking, #GeniusLoci, #Sprawl, #architecturalreview, #form4architecture

Summer Reading II: “Building Enchantment”


In this second post for our summer reading series “Excerpts from: The Absurdity of Beauty – rebalancing the Modernist narrative”, we wanted to highlight the discourse around poetry and architecture that informed our approach in publishing this monograph with Architectural Review. Conversations around the notion of poetry were critical from the start and developed as we talked to architect and Royal Academician Ian Ritchie about what he would write for the publication. He also introduced us to his friend, architect and writer Richard England, who has dwelled on this topic over many years.

What emerged from our many pleasurable exchanges whilst putting the monograph together was a discourse on how the poetic qualities of architecture are what makes it an art form. They are what enables architecture to have universal appeal and to be emotionally meaningful. These exchanges led to Richard England also writing for the monograph and what followed was his thoughtful essay “Building Enchantment”. In it, England eloquently describes the expressive potential that architecture and poetry share. The devices are, of course, different but their ability to transcend the everyday is the same.

We hope you enjoy the following passages from Richard England’s essay “Building Enchantment” and its foray into the essence of things and perhaps the very things we seek to find when we fall in love with architecture.

“Building Enchantment” by Richard England – Extract:

In attempting to establish a relationship between architecture and poetry, it seems appropriate first of all to investigate the origins and meanings of the two respective disciplines: Architecture derives from the Greek word Arkhitekton, where Arkhi signifies ‘master’ and Tekton ‘building’. Poetry also comes from the Greek Poieses, meaning ‘to make’.  

“Making and building”

From the etymology of the words, it is clear that the two disciplines are involved in a process of making and building, ie, creating. However, the materials and methodologies employed are different; building materials for architecture and words for poetry. Yet both share the aim of enchanting and elevating the human spirit. Architecture and poetry also share the qualities of precision, metrics, structure and rhythm, as essential constituents in both their creative process and manifestation. Also common to both is the play of contrasting opposites: solid and void in architecture, sound and silence in poetry.

Poetry, not unlike architecture, is also about building, building with words and sculpting with sound. It is about the taste of words and the intermittent voids and silences of the pauses; a crossover between sound and silence. One reads not only what is written, but also that which is not written; the words between the lines and the invisible words too; the heard and the unheard, the said and the unsaid. It is how musical and meaningful the poet can make these passages that elevates his or her work from the realm of prose to that of poetry, in the same way that an architect can make a building lift the spirit and enchant its users. It was TS Eliot who said ‘poetry must communicate even before it is understood’. The true poet is the one who casts a web of magic that has the capacity to carry the reader away, just as the true architect caps into his building human emotions to lift the hearts of its users.


Summer Reading I: “Against Notopia”


This summer we are posting a series of extracts from essays featured in “The Absurdity of Beauty – Rebalancing the Modernist narrative”, our advocacy monograph published with The Architectural Review.  To launch this series of extracts we have chosen an essay by the monograph’s Editor, Catherine Slessor, on the idea of place.

Called “Against Notopia”, Slessor’s essay touches on many of the ideas that recur in different contexts elsewhere in the monograph. Ideas about a growing ambivalence to the legacy of much of what the Modern Movement has achieved in terms of creating a successful, engaging and emotionally meaningful built environment. Ideas about how corporate forces have high-jacked the Modern Movement’s aesthetic whilst leaving behind its ethos. Ideas about how we might better reconnect with the very people whose communities we are designing. Slessor’s often provocative and always perceptive style offers a fresh perspective on these issues and adds a new dimension to the discourse on the notion of ‘nowhere place’ or ‘Notopia’ that has been examined on the pages of Architectural Review in recent years. 

“Against Notopia” by Catherine Slessor – Extract:

“In an age of increased cultural and social homogenisation, the elusive and often contested notion of place has assumed a renewed importance. The current era is dominated by rapacious globalisation, the systematic erosion of difference and the commodification of culture. While representing material advancement and social liberalisation, these forces also invariably involve the destruction of traditional cultures and a disengagement with the past. What is now prized most by the multinational corporations who stalk the globe are universal systems of value-free exchange and profit.

Left to the mercy of market forces, the commercialisation of land has spawned the selfish city, as described in the AR’s recent ‘Notopia’ manifesto as being ‘disfigured by the interests of bankers and stillborn in vision and unable to cope with mass urbanisation … one building next to another does not make a place and many buildings do not make a city’. Notopia is ‘a warning sign that the metropolis as place of exchange dialogue and delight between diverse groups of people is being exterminated. Buildings alone do not support life.’

Architecture’s ambivalent relationship with modern capitalism and its growing dependence on arcane treatises and self-justificatory theories has also resulted in the neglect of a diversity of physical environments that have the potential to deliver empirical inspiration for art and invention. To an extent, architecture has become a marginalised freemasonry, its creative potential reduced to eclectic wrapping paper adorning slabs of dehumanised corporate space planning. From Dallas to Dhaka to Dubai, the outcome of this banal hegemony of the built environment is only too apparent.”



From Biennale to Bookstand


We wanted to share our Venice Architecture Biennale experiences with you. On May 24th, the Architectural Review Magazine team launched our advocacy monograph “The Absurdity of Beauty – Rebalancing the Modernist narrative” at the Hotel Monaco Grand Canal. The party was a buzzing affair in true Biennale spirit with lots of fellow architects, international media, curators, representatives of cultural organizations and even some Venetians! Too rare to have locals at Biennale events but we were delighted to achieve this and to learn about the stunning reception room’s history from them: Venice’s former casino, recently restored to its former glory, ceiling paintings and all.

As guests sipped on prosecco, spritzers, and Bellinis, Form4’s Founding Design Principal and Chief Artistic Officer, John Marx, gave a speech about how the collaboration with the Architectural Review came about. More on that in our previous blog entry; suffice it to say here that Marx’s thoughts on architects not having to choose between humanity and design resonated in the room. Editorial Director of the Architectural Review, Paul Finch, emphasized the successful creative collaboration with Form4 and how this was essential to craft such a distinct and original publication. A publication that we hope will encourage debate about the legacy of Modernism.

This line of debate is further encouraged at our exhibit “2nd Century Modernism” at Palazzo Mora in Venice. We unveiled our installation there on May 25th as part of a group show – Time, Space, Existence – organized by the Global Arts Affairs Foundation. It was thrilling to see our work displayed in this Venetian setting with ornate timber beamed ceilings and Murano glass chandeliers. As per usual, the Palazzo Mora opening bash was one of the highlights of the Biennale preview days with guests spilling out into the street.

Being involved in the Venice Biennale is an exhilarating experience. Venice speaks to all the senses as both a stage and backdrop to the plethora of engaging events. It is also a great privilege to be showing our work simultaneously in Venice with the world’s leading practitioners including Daniel Libeskind, Odile Decq, Kengo Kuma, and Fumiko Maki at Palazzo Mora. We very much hope you have the opportunity to see our exhibit (closes 25 November 2018) and are pleased that the “The Absurdity of Beauty” is now available on The Architectural Review’s website.

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This week we are celebrating two cultural projects we have worked on over the last year with Architectural Review (AR) Magazine and the Global Art Affairs (GAA) Foundation in Venice.

00A_AR ImagesspreadThis week we are celebrating two cultural projects we have worked on over the last year with Architectural Review (AR) Magazine and the Global Art Affairs (GAA) Foundation in Venice. Both projects, one a publication and the other an exhibition, although different, have risen out of a sense of advocacy at Form4 Architecture.

As a practising architect, John Marx, Form4 Architecture’s Chief Creative Officer, has wanted to engage meaningfully in the discourse and debates that currently both inform and challenge our profession.  He asks difficult questions of himself and colleagues:

When did the public fall out of love with the built environment?
When did our profession polarize so deeply between the pragmatic and the self-indulgent?
When did we begin to neglect the people we pledged to care for?
Is there a place for poetry in architecture?
Is emotional meaning important in architecture?
Can architecture embrace the concept of abundance?

These and other questions have been building up over several years as Marx has been developing the underlying philosophy to address these issues and, as a result, he has instigated these two efforts to share this with the profession and the public at large.

Form4’s AR monograph The Absurdity of Beauty: Rebalancing the Modernist Narrative tackles Marx’s themes through a series of essays by prominent architectural writers including Pierluigi Serraino, Paul Finch, Catherine Slessor, Ian Ritchie, Sam Lubell, Richard England, Jay Merrick and Jeremy Melvin. John Marx has written about the studio’s own journey in finding a balance between the poetic and rational elements of design.  The monograph includes a portfolio of the practice’s work to illustrate this as well as a group of essays looking at recent developments in California.  Form4’s Chief Financial and Operations Officer, Paul Ferro, focuses on Silicon Valley in this section.

The monograph has been edited by Catherine Slessor who says, “The Form4 monograph is conceived not simply as an exploration of the practice’s diverse body of work, but an investigation into‎ how the narrative of Modernism, which shaped design culture for the last century, can be rebalanced to instigate a new and humanly responsive era of architecture and urbanism.”

At GAA’s Venice space in the Palazzo Mora, John Marx’s installation for Form4 Architecture is contributing to the overall theme of exhibitions: Time – Space – Existence.  The practice is focussed on explaining the testing architectural environment that exists today and against what is increasingly considered the mixed legacy of Modernism.  This had led Marx to coin the term “2nd Century Modernism” which is also the name of the studio’s own exhibit.  As the name suggests, there is a desire to make sense of the world through classification. However, the categories used to do this by Marx are original and include: Form; Concept; Technologies; Emotion; and Cultural circumstances. As Form4 observes, Concept and Technology loom large today while Emotional meaning and Culture are on the back foot.  How is it that we got here and what can we do?  Is there a more generous balance to be sought that is engaging and inclusive?

The Absurdity of Beauty: Rebalancing the Modernist Narrative will be launched by the Architectural Review at The Monaco Hotel on the Grand Canal in Venice on 24 May.

Form4 Architecture’s exhibition on 2nd Century Modernism will be at Palazzo Mora from 26 May to 25 November 2018. Palazzo Mora, Strada Nova, 3659, 30121 Venezia



“2nd Century Modernism Exhibition” opens in Venice

4postcardsNext week sees the opening of our exhibition at Palazzo Mora in Venice organized by the Global Art Affairs (GAA) Foundation. The overall theme of the exhibits hosted by GAA is “Space – Time – Existence”.

We are interested in better understanding the challenging architectural environment that exists today and to do this against what is increasingly considered the mixed legacy of Modernism. We are of course no longer Modernists in the way Twentieth Century architects may have perceived themselves. Plurality is inherent to our condition especially with ideas, expertise and images traveling around the world faster than ever thanks to our nearly endless new communication networks.

Yet classification is an inherent part of how we make sense of our world. If we are no longer Modernists what are we?  Architecture manifests itself in a particular Form, embodying a Concept, engaging specific Technologies, producing in the user an Emotion largely determined by Cultural circumstances, ages, and latitudes.  Over time, these five factors have altered their level of significance in the design community. Concept and Technology loom large today while emotional meaning and culture are on the back foot. This in many ways illustrates our current condition of alienation in relation to the public and their lack of affection for Modernism.

Our exhibition analyses how we have got here. What has changed over time?  How once heroic ideals of a “less is more” ethos or “form follows function” one have become just a way to cost cut. Recent plays on these words like “less is less” and “form follows finance” are indicative of this abuse of Modernist reductivist principles.

Yet we like to believe that the future has something different in store for us, so we have coined the notion of 2nd Century Modernism.  We like to think of it as representing a feast of architecture: abundant; diverse; inclusive; vibrant.  We hope that our exhibition in Venice will be a place to reflect how by understanding the recent past we can move towards a better future for architecture. One that is engaging for all and allows for a wider interpretation of how architects can contribute to society.  In this vein the exhibition is about seeking a balance between the linear, logical, verbal thought processes with the three-dimensional, intuitive, visual and creative processes.  We very much hope you have a chance to see our work at Palazzo Mora.

Form4 Architecture’s exhibition on 2nd Century Modernism will coincide with this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and be open from 26 May to 25 November 2018.

Palazzo Mora, Strada Nova, 3659, 30121 Venezia

For more see:

The Absurdity of Beauty, Rebalancing the Modernist narrative: POETRY


We are delighted to post an extract from the Architectural Review (AR) Monograph “The Absurdity of Beauty, Rebalancing the Modernist narrative – Form4 Architecture”.  Edited by Catherine Slessor, the monograph has been a year-long collaboration between the AR and Form4 Architecture. It has been very much a work of advocacy for the practice, thinking critically on the legacy of Modernism. Something the Magazine does on a monthly basis as it seeks to define a humane, inclusive and contextual approach to contemporary architecture.  Themes touched earlier on this blog by Form4, like emotional meaning, shared purpose and vibrancy, have also played an important part in shaping the editorial content of the new monograph.

About The Architectural Review
AR was founded in 1896 and by the 1930s it was one of the most influential platforms for architecture steering the direction of Modernism with Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto first published in the magazine.  After the Second World War, AR played an important role in raising awareness of “Townscape” (the art of urban design), a subject that has remained close to the magazine.  More recently, “Townscape” was spearheaded by Editor Christine Murray in her bold and effective “Notopia” campaign that was the actual catalyst leading Form4 Architecture to work with AR to produce their latest monograph which tackles many of the issues around the notion of a deteriorating sense of place from a historic, cultural and also Californian perspective.


Here now a taster of the “The Absurdity of Beauty, Rebalancing the Modernist narrative – Form4 Architecture” with an excerpt from an essay by London-based architect and Royal Academician, Ian Ritchie: The Architect as Calligrapher. Ritchie’s beautiful words go to the very essence of Form4 Architecture’s urge to publish the monograph as they remind us of one the very things that is too often forgotten when discussing or, in fact, conceiving architecture: poetry.

Excerpt from The Architect as Calligrapher by Ian Ritchie

“I love words. They lie at the root of human communication and the shared understanding we call culture. As an architect, I also use words as an investigative tool to discover what I am trying to express. This usually takes the form of poetry. I enjoy removing the superficial – the reductive process. The need to critically examine each word and its relationship to the whole poem allows me to convey meaning, significance and emotional qualities with an economy of means similar to the precision needed in architecture.

Notes begin, texts follow and these become the sources for a poem. But why poetry? Why not an essay? The creative act is always personal so I can only conjecture, although the intuitive connections between architecture and poetry are widely recognized.

Structure is fundamental to both, as are other elements of design. We even use the same words to describe the ways we create architectural and poetic pleasure and meaning out of formalized elements: scale, rhythm, balance, proportion, syntax.

Both buildings and poems are essentially compositions of separate elements used to create a whole which exists in both the rational and emotional realms. The poet uses silences and the rhythm of words to create a poem tying the mind’s interior to the outside world. The architect uses light and the rhythm between material and empty space to create a building that mediates between our senses, the spaces we live in and the outside environment.

Poetry is also a means by which I discover the emotional and essential context/idea of a particular architectural project.

The beauty of poems is their capacity to absorb and express emotion, essential to artistic creativity. The design process for me always begins with an idea, and ideas can come from many sources. But they exist as ideas without a clear representation.

My process of thinking accepts that there is a boundary-free flow between my brain and the outside world. This is the essential self through which we respond to internal and external challenges and is derived from the concepts acquired through interaction with our environment and those inherited through our particular DNA. The first preconceptual response consists of melding cognitive knowledge with one’s psychological predilection and imagination, conflating inspiration and creativity, to produce percepts – words and images. Then comes a synthesis and distillation for which process language – ideally poems – is my initial preference. This stage of the design process is personal research.

I then try to capture this distillation visually in the simplest possible way, using

a few brush strokes – a sort of architectural calligraphy. This begins the conceptual stage of the design process, embracing both an aesthetic assessment and a pragmatic analysis. It is also the beginning of the collective architectural process, during which the concept is repeatedly refined and balanced, pragmatically and aesthetically, until the concept’s loose edges are exhausted.”

Leipzig Glass Hall etching 1

The full essay will be available as of 24 May 2018 when the AR – Form4 monograph is launched in Venice as part of this year’s Architecture Biennale preview events. For details please follow this blog or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.